Team preview: Oregon
The Blue Ribbon College Football Yearbook previews the 2006 Oregon Ducks, exclusively on Insider.
Talk about a statement season. After seven straight bowl appearances, Oregon dropped the 2004 season finale against Oregon State to finish 5-6, and ineligible for a bowl bid. The dean of Pac-10 football coaches, Mike Bellotti, admitted how disappointing the campaign was, going as far to say his team lacked the energy to defeat its in-state rival. That's harsh, but Bellotti was simply planting a seed, providing an honest answer but at the same time, hopeful his message would be properly received in the locker room. It was.
Oregon was among the surprises of the college football season in 2005, winning 10-of-11 regular-season games, the lone blemish coming at home to USC, 45-13. However, that decision came in the conference opener and it's hard to fathom the Ducks didn't garner enough support in the polls to earn a BCS invite by running the table -- seven straight wins in the conference. Alas for Oregon, it fell short, the last team not to crack the eight invitees and ended up losing to Oklahoma, 17-14, in the Holiday Bowl. "That was a special group of kids," Bellotti said. "Our whole motto was focus and finish, especially after 2004. We had a chance to match the best record in school history. It was the second-most prolific offense in school history and an improving defense that really made a difference down the stretch. In my mind, that may have been the best group of kids I've ever been associated with in my 33 years of coaching in terms of their ability to support each other and to find a way to win football games." It was certainly an impressive campaign -- 10 wins, second-place outright in the Pac-10, and in the regular-season finale, with a year earlier obviously on their minds, the Ducks defeated Oregon State, 56-14. For Bellotti, it was another impressive line on the coaching resume and there have been a few since arriving in Oregon a dozen seasons ago -- ninety wins, a .682 winning percentage and three double-digit victory campaigns since 2000. He needs just one more victory to surpass Rich Brooks for most coaching wins in program history. Despite being just 55, Bellotti has become almost an institution in Oregon, having been in Eugene since 1989, serving his first six years on campus as offensive coordinator. He raises more than $100,000 each year with his charity golf outing and in 2002, donated $25,000 to the school's library system. Even after the 5-6 campaign in 2004, there wasn't a sole whisper -- at least from anyone worth listening to -- about perhaps some new blood being in order on the sideline. Bellotti has created a model of consistency that allows for that minor setback season and yet, the program's mentality doesn't change. "We've set the bar fairly high here and I'm comfortable with that and the expectations that go with it," Bellotti said. "If a few positions come along, we have a chance to be a good team. If you asked each coach on the staff, they would tell you, in all honesty, that this could be a very good football team." Those words were spoken by Bellotti in late May 2005. Twelve months later, they apply to another autumn of Oregon football. And chances are, come spring 2007, they could be spoken again.
First off, and this is important, there's no quarterback controversy. It doesn't exist. Sure, there were numerous stories written about the spring battle between juniors Dennis Dixon (6-4, 196) and Brady Leaf (6-5, 231), but the thing is, it didn't exist then and it most certainly won't be an issue come August. At least not to those who matter. "The situation is the same -- Dennis is our quarterback," offensive coordinator and former BYU head coach Gary Crowton said. "They both are capable, but Brady's our backup." Last season, after Kellen Clemens went down with an ankle injury in late October, Dixon started four games, with Leaf virtually splitting time, as evidenced by the numbers. Dixon completed 66.3 percent of his 104 throws for 777 yards, six touchdowns and just three interceptions. As for Leaf, he completed 58.5 percent of his 82 attempts for three touchdowns and three picks. And yes, in case anyone doesn't already know, Leaf is indeed the younger brother of former Washington State quarterback Ryan Leaf, the No. 2 overall pick of the 1998 NFL draft. This season, Crowton says the sharing of possessions is likely no more. "We might try getting Brady a drive a game, but there won't be a rotation of any kind," Crowton said. "When there's a need for Brady to come in, he will, but Dennis is our starter going into the season. Dennis is athletic, accurate, runs well [4.55 speed], and that's the direction we're heading right now." Dixon is among the top dual-threat quarterbacks in the conference, having rushed for 143 yards and a touchdown last season. He also avoids pressure well, almost instinctively, and unlike many scramblers, Dixon doesn't take many sacks. And the ones he does are usually minimal in terms of yards lost. As for Leaf, he's the prototypical pocket passer, much like a Drew Bledsoe. If he gets that split extra second, few throw the ball with more precision. The protection shouldn't be an issue, either, with five returning starting linemen from a unit that allowed just 20 sacks in 2005. That said, the decision to go with Dixon doesn't seem based on mobility. While sophomore Kyle Bennett (6-4, 220) is currently listed third on the depth chart, more than likely, Oregon's top recruit this season, quarterback Justin Roper (6-6, 200) of Buford (Ga.) High School, will serve as the unofficial No. 3 while taking a redshirt season. If either Dixon or Leaf are injured, or are ineffective, Roper would likely be next in line.
The Ducks graduated a solid back in Terrence Whitehead, who rushed for 679 yards, but sophomore Jonathan Stewart (5-11, 234) could prove an upgrade as soon as this season. The nation's leading kick returner as a freshman, Stewart was second on the squad with nine touchdowns, six coming via the ground, two on kick returns and another through the air. He rushed for 188 yards as Whitehead's backup on 53 carries, or 3.5 yards per attempt. This spring, Stewart showed what he was capable of, with 74 yards and a touchdown on just 10 carries, plus five receptions in the spring scrimmage. "Jonathan was outstanding this spring, he's without question to me, an every down back," Crowton said. "He's just a great athlete, was highly recruited and there's no doubt whatsoever, this kid's our starter this season." Stewart has already become a workout legend at Oregon, gaining six pounds of muscle last season and this spring, running the fourth-fastest 40-yard dash in program history (4.34). He also benched-pressed 410 pounds, a program record for running backs, and his 38.5-inch vertical leap is second all-time behind just Latin Berry's 40.5-inch effort in 1988. Though Stewart won't be eligible for the NFL draft until 2008, scouts already have him on their radar as a potential first-round pick. It wouldn't surprise anyone within the program if he challenged for All-Pac-10 honors this season. As a running back, Stewart is the all-around package, too, strong enough to run between the tackles and quick enough to burst around the ends. And as shown on his kickoff returns, he has the breakaway speed to evade the secondary. As an added bonus, he has soft hands and above average receiving skills. Stewart's backups, Jeremiah Johnson (5-9, 213) and Terrell Jackson (5-9, 190), are also sophomores. Both are similar in style -- change-of-direction runners looking for holes. Last season, Johnson rushed for 147 yards and two scores on just 24 carries (6.1 yards per rush) while Jackson had 107 yards on 27 attempts (4.0 average). Both are decent receivers and offer solid depth. When the Ducks go with an H-back, or fullback, the likely candidate is senior Dan Kause (6-4, 252), who caught two passes in 2005 in six games. His backups include redshirt freshman Ed Dickson (6-5, 230) and sophomore Matt Larkin (6-2, 220).
Oregon lost three of its four leading receivers from a season ago, at least in terms of receptions, including one of the best in program history, Baltimore Ravens draft choice Demetrius Williams. The Ducks' leading receiver in 2005 concluded his stellar four-year career on campus with 2,600 yards and 20 touchdowns. Oregon still has talent at the position, though, with two returning starters and potentially plenty of depth, too. Senior James Finley (6-2, 204) was just two catches shy of tying Williams for the team lead last season, hauling in 57 for 571 yards and two touchdowns. In terms of hands, Finley's right there with any wide-out around; however, while he's sure-handed, he's definitely more of a possession receiver, not showing much in terms of after-the-catch or stretching the field. With others around him who can motor down the sidelines, Finley is the perfect complement and a nice second- or third option for Dixon when the primary target is covered downfield. The second returning starter in Oregon's mostly three-wide-out set is junior Cameron Colvin (6-2, 205), who finished last season with 22 catches for 332 yards and three scores. More of a long threat than Finley, Colvin, at times, seems capable of really taking that next step. Crowton said Colvin had "a strong, strong spring." The third starter, at least departing the spring, was junior Brian Paysinger (6-2, 208), who was hand-clocked this spring at 4.34 seconds in the 40. He caught six passes last season in limited action. He'll be hard-pressed to hold onto his job if freshman Derrick Jones (6-1, 186) comes in as advertised. Originally signed by USC, he practiced with the Trojans in August 2004 before being declared ineligible by the NCAA. While he hasn't played competitively since the fall of 2003, Jones can flat-out fly, running a 10.2 on Oregon's 4x100-meter team that fell just shy of qualifying for nationals this spring. At Polytechnic High School in Los Angeles, he was considered among the top prep receivers in the country. Others vying for playing time at Oregon's deepest position are sophomore Jaison Williams (6-5, 243), senior Jordan Kent (6-5, 210) and junior Garren Strong (6-3, 200), who had 13 receptions last season and looked strong this spring. "We're going to play a lot of guys, rotate them in and out, use our size and speed," said Crowton, who was among six finalists for the Broyles Award last season as the nation's top assistant coach. "It's pretty exciting having this group of players." In late May, the Ducks added yet another wide-out worthy of playing time in transfer Ryan Mattice (6-3, 200) of Dixie State (Utah) College. A tight end at Dixie, and a quarterback in high school, Mattice served a two-year mission after a year of junior college and despite being 22, has three years of eligibility remaining. At tight end, senior Dante Rosario (6-4, 250) has the size and the receiving skills to make for a viable option in the passing game. He finished 2005 with 15 catches for 168 yards and two touchdowns.
Like its instate Pac-10 counterpart, Oregon returns all five starters on the line. The anchor, ranked among the top in the nation at his position, is senior center Enoka Lucas (6-4, 299), who has 20 career starts and was a second-team All-Pac-10 selection last season. An NFL prospect, Lucas is the leader of this unit -- in the huddle and off the field. "Just a smart kid, smart football player -- Enoka is the leader of this team," Crowton said. "We were young here last season, but this unit is really going to be a key for us." The rest of the returnees were first-year starters last season, including senior Palauni Ma Sun (6-6, 235) and junior Josh Tschirgi (6-4, 311) at the guards and massive junior Geoff Schwartz (6-7, 359) and sophomore Max Unger (6-5, 296), a first team freshman All-American, at the tackles. While the run blocking wasn't any great shakes last season, the pass protection was superb, allowing just 20 sacks over 12 games. With the entire unit back and Unger expected to mature into an elite player, a potential all-conference guy, plus the mobile Dixon taking the majority of snaps, a reachable goal for this group could be allowing no more than a sack per game. However, while the returning starters are locked in entering practice in August, a pair of JUCO transfers in guard Pat So'oalo (6-5, 355), who was originally signed last season but wasn't eligible, and tackle Fenuki Tupou (6-6, 322) could be pressing come September. Others looking for some playing time include sophomore center Mark Lewis (6-4, 292), redshirt freshman guard Simi Toeaina (6-4, 308) and sophomore tackle Jacob Hucko (6-7, 307).
The Pac-10, without debate, has the most accomplished array of kickers of any conference in the country entering the season. To many, Oregon State's Alexis Serna is the preseason All-American selection, but in reality, Justin Medlock at UCLA or even Arizona senior Nick Folt, who was routinely booting 65-yarders this spring, could corral Pac-10 honors and few would be surprised. The same goes for Oregon senior Paul Martinez (6-2, 210), who has an NFL leg and led the nation last season with field goals made per game (2.11). He converted 19-of-24 three-point efforts, including an impressive 8-of-9 from beyond 40 yards. Included in that total was a season-long of 51 yards. His kickoffs were solid, too, although punter Matt Dragich handled the bulk of those duties last season.
Last season defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti's unit led the Pac-10 in total defense, allowing 357.7 yards per game, and passing defense (223.8) while placing third in scoring defense 23.2 and just off the pace with 31 sacks. Washington State finished with 34. "The players made their coach look good," the ever-humble Aliotti said. One player in particular certainly made Aliotti and just about anyone who took the field with him look good, and then some. That was Haloti Hgata, and the Baltimore Ravens saw enough of his dominance to make him their first-round pick last April. The consensus All-America tackle was a disruptive force last season, drawing double and often triple teams and still somehow finishing with 61 tackles, nine for loss and three sacks. He was also chosen co-defensive player of the year in the Pac-10. "Absolutely, he was a dominant tackle, a force, if not the best out there last season, certainly one of the best in the country," Aliotti said. "We don't have another one like him. The Ravens do, though." Hgata's loss, a year before his eligibility was up, obviously gives this unit a different look. "The line was an area of concern this spring, but we made some strides," Aliotti said. "But we didn't look as good as last season, that's fair to say." Of the six returning starters on defense, two are among the linemen, led by senior Matt Toeaina (6-3, 301), who played mostly end last season but was shifted to tackle this spring for lack of better options. He was solid in 2005, with 30 tackles, six for loss and three sacks. Toeaina could move back to end depending on which players step up come August. The other returning starter is senior end Darius Sanders (6-5, 269), who had 9.0 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks in 2005. Sophomore Cole Linehan (6-4, 295) is projected to start at tackle, while senior Victor Filipe (6-2, 290) departed spring as the other starting end. Both saw limited action last season. Others in the mix include junior tackle David Faaeteete (6-2, 307), sophomore end Nick Reed (6-3, 259) and sophomore tackle Ra'Shon Harris (6-5, 305). Another familiar name on the roster is Dexter Manley II (6-2, 260), the son of former Redskins Pro Bowl defensive end Dexter Manley. "The line showed some potential surprises this spring, but we need some guys to really step up," Aliotti said. "Harris, Linehan and Reed all had good springs, and that was encouraging."
The Ducks use multiple defensive alignments, switching between a 4-2-5 system, with a rover taking the place of a third linebacker, and the conventional 4-3-4. Within the rover system, both starting linebackers are back from last season in seniors Blair Phillips (6-2, 246) and Brent Haberly (6-0, 228). However, a huge loss at strong-side linebacker is Anthony Trucks, who led the Ducks across the board with 99 tackles, 15.5 for loss and 11 sacks. "It's a recurring theme, talking about losing some playmakers, but Trucks really made a lot of plays for us," Aliotti said. "We lost five starters from last season that weren't just out there taking up space, they were productive. "But Haberly and Phillips started quite a bit for us, and we feel good about our linebackers." Haberly, who had just three career tackles as of last August, started all 12 games and finished with impressive numbers, including 63 tackles, 5.5 for loss. He was also effective in pass coverage. Phillips started eight games and had 45 stops, nine for loss and two sacks. When Oregon goes with three linebackers, look for junior A.J. Tuitele (5-11, 213) to draw the majority of the work. The versatile Tuitele, who can play strong safety as well as all three linebacker positions, had 37 stops in 2005. Backups include sophomore John Bacon (6-3, 235) and junior Jason Turner (6-2, 221).
Last spring, while speaking with a reporter about the upcoming season, Aliotti couldn't stop gushing about then 17-year old freshman rover Patrick Chung (5-11, 205). He had committed to Oregon without even taking a visit a few months after his 16th birthday in December 2003 and Aliotti, not one prone to hyping his players for the sake of hype, said, "Patrick is so athletic and he's strong enough to play in the Pac-10 right now. Chances are he'll be starting." While many were puzzled to why Chung wasn't chosen the conference's defensive newcomer of the year by media and coaches, The Sporting News didn't miss out, tabbing him the defensive freshman of the year. He was the team's second-leading tackler with 91 and also added two interceptions. "It's nice when a young man steps up like that and proves his coach right, huh?," Aliotti said. "Patrick's a true warrior on the field, in every sense, just a special football player that's only going to improve." Keep in mind that Chung turns 19 years old on Aug. 19. While it's not likely an option, having taken a redshirt his freshman year, Chung could conceivably be drafted as a teenager, because he's three years removed from high school, as per NFL guidelines. If he remains healthy after offseason shoulder surgery that kept him out of spring practice, Chung should lead the team in tackles and compete for All-Pac-10 honors. Senior free safety J.D. Nelson (5-11, 219), who had offseason knee surgery but is expected at 100 percent this fall, was a second-team All-Pac-10 selection in 2005, with 64 tackles and an interception, and forms a solid 1-2 combination with Chung. The likely starter at strong safety is junior Kwame Agyeman (5-11, 205), who had 12 tackles in a reserve role last season. He'll be pushed by sophomore Jerome Boyd (6-2, 211), with senior Parris Moore (6-0, 190) backing up Chung and junior Ryan DePalo (6-1, 199) the No. 2 behind Nelson on the depth chart. "The secondary, after Chung and Nelson, is up for grabs," Aliotti said. "The key for us, though, is what to do at cornerback." The starters through the spring, hardly set in stone, but nonetheless, were junior Jackie Bates (5-10, 180), who had 30 tackles as a reserve last season, and redshirt freshman Willie Glasper (5-11, 175). Pushing both are redshirt freshman Walter Thurmond III (6-0, 175) and JUCO transfer Jameel Dowling (6-2, 184), of Butte (Calif.) College, who enrolled in January and took part in spring practice. "Willie and Thurmond were surprises this spring, a lot of the younger guys played better than expected," Aliotti said. "I really think Jackie's going to be a great player for us." Another redshirt freshman, Terrell Ward (5-10, 189), had a solid spring and could vie for some action. Overall, the goal for Aliotti is keeping his defense competitive as it gels and develops in the early stages. And then, say early October and the meat of the Pac-10 schedule, the unit will be forcing turnovers and winning games. "We played pretty good defense last season and I hope we're solid enough early to compete," Aliotti said. We have to really get better during two-a-days, and if we do, this group could be pretty good, especially as the season progresses."
The Ducks split the punting chores in 2005 between then juniors Matt Dragich (6-1, 213) and Aaron Knowles (6-0, 182) and while the former departed spring practice No. 1 on the depth chart, production, possibly even on a game-by-game basis, will dictate this situation. Dragich averaged 38.9 yards on 32 punts, while Knowles was slightly better at 40.0 over 14 efforts, although he had one blocked. Neither senior is all-conference caliber, although Dragich, the back-up kicker, has a strong leg. Part of the issue could've been adjusting to the punt formation changes implemented last season in hopes of improving coverage.
The return game should once again be strong, as it was last season, with cornerback Justin Phinisee handling punts as one of the best in the conference and Stewart leading the nation at 33.7 yards over a dozen returns, two of which he brought back for touchdowns. However, with Phinisee having graduated and Stewart likely to see part-time action at best while concentrating on his starting tailback responsibilities, it would appear the Ducks were lacking in the return game. And while that could end up being true, some serious talent is inheriting those jobs, with lightning-quick freshman wide-out Derrick Jones, an elite Pac-10 sprinter, slated to handle punt returns and backup tailback Jeremiah Johnson the front runner on kick returns. Both have the ability to actually improve the return game from a season ago, especially Jones. The coverage units were decent outside of a return punt going for six points, although whoever kicks off could use a little more distance.
Unless Stewart ends up being the second coming of Jim Brown, and even then, it's tough crunching the Oregon schedule and coming up with another double-digit victory campaign. Even with the added regular-season games as the Pac-10 finally goes to a full schedule, with each team playing every other team. In years past, two teams took a season off from one another on a rotating basis, obviously somewhat of an advantage for whoever didn't have USC the last four years.
The Ducks are a bowl-caliber team, but nonconference games at Fresno State and at home against last season's Holiday Bowl foe Oklahoma, plus a stronger Pac-10 from top to bottom, will make it tough going. The Ducks caught some breaks along the way last season, remaining extremely healthy, not facing UCLA, beating Cal in overtime and a field-goal decision at Washington State. Can such good fortune happen again? Don't misunderstand. Oregon was worthy of a BCS bowl, and the loss to Oklahoma in the Holiday Bowl was likely more of a letdown factor than anything else, much like a year previous with Cal losing to Texas Tech in the same bowl. The loss of Ngata is huge. If for some reason he pulled a Matt Leinart and stuck around for his senior campaign, conventional wisdom would have placed the Ducks right there with Cal and USC in a three-team battle for conference supremacy. But as it is, the defense needs some patchwork, the special teams are decent, with an upside of being solid, and the offense appears loaded, ready to score 35-40 points a week. To some degree, we saw this formula last season with Washington State, and a few injuries later, well, we're certainly not predicting Oregon to suffer a similar fate as the Cougars. But it's worth noting how similar the teams appear on paper. Oregon starts off with a vicious six-game schedule that includes Stanford, at Fresno State, Oklahoma, at Arizona State, at Cal and UCLA. If the Ducks somehow come away at 3-3, or better, even with USC looming and tough road dates at Washington State and Oregon State, they should end up around 7-5, maybe 5-4 in the Pac-10. And while Oregon has an upside, this team appears a middle-of-the-road finisher in the conference.
For the most comprehensive previews available on all 119 Division I teams, order the "Bible" of college football, the 2006 Blue Ribbon College Football Yearbook, at www.blueribbonyearbook.com or call 1-866-805-BALL (2255).
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